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SOFT POWER, HARD TRUTHS / No man, or nation, is an island

There's no public evidence as of this writing that Tomohiro Kato, the 25-year-old temporary auto worker who Sunday went on an armed rampage that left several people dead in Akihabara, Tokyo's pop culture mecca, is or ever was a full-blown otaku. But he reportedly lived alone in a tiny apartment (the status of many in Japan's younger generation), visited Akihabara on several prior occasions and premeditated his attack, even updating accounts of his plans and progress on a mobile phone Web site in the hours and minutes leading up to his midday killing spree.

The emerging portrait of Kato is that of the proverbial outsider--in a culture where for centuries "outsider" could be synonymous with "nobody." After his arrest, he reportedly told police: "I am tired of life."

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami once described his characters to me thus: "They are so lonely, but at least they have their styles and obsessions for survival. If their lives are empty of meaning, purpose or goals, they adopt a kind of postmodernist view--surviving a meaningless life strictly on their own obsessions, their taste in things, their styles."

At the time, I ascribed Murakami's rising (and often youthful) global readership at least partly to his urbane existentialism resonating with readers from Moscow to Mumbai. I still do. The spread of megacities and mass culture, the fraying of community and the vertigo of decentralization have doubtless left many of us, regardless of nationality, feeling "so lonely."

But when I began to study Japan's producers of pop culture and its legions of hyperobsessive devotees, I came to realize that Murakami's description might best be applied to the masses of isolated, hermitic, and inward-looking techno-fantasy seekers in the author's homeland--and with an alarming degree of accuracy. Recent spikes in Internet-related suicides, hikikomori (pathological withdrawal from social interaction) cases and other societal ills infecting younger Japanese have rendered Murakami's use of the word "survival" darkly telling.

The tension between society's outsiders and insiders informs numerous narratives in manga and anime, from shojo stories of schoolgirl outcasts in titles like Sailor Moon to futuristic dramas such as Appleseed, featuring cyborgs and androids demanding equal status with humans.

Since most illustrated characters in Japanese pop culture are "stateless" (having no discernible racial or ethnic characteristics), their tensions and traumas remain doubly abstract--removed from reality via fiction, but also referenced via metaphors (like cyborgs) that allow viewers to experience without feeling implicated.

In reality, Japan's reputation for accepting outsiders from within (especially young Japanese living or working outside of "the system") or without (immigrants, asylum seekers and so on) has been abysmal. As a Japanese government official told me during an informal conversation in New York: "Hikikomori? In global politics, the entire Japanese nation is hikikomori."

On June 15, Amnesty International Japan's Tokyo Chapter (www.aig78.org) will host a dance party and benefit concert to focus on human rights issues in China. One of Amnesty Japan's goals, according to organizer Chris Pitts, "is to get foreigners and Japanese together to help make a difference in the world."

June 20 will see the Tokyo opening of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' third annual Refugee Film Festival (www.refugeefilm.org/en/timetable.html). Kirill Konin, the festival's artistic director, tells me: "There is a general lack of understanding of foreigners in this society. Not many Japanese would visit Darfur or Iraq, so we bring Iraq and Darfur to them, using the power of film and pop culture."

And on June 21-22, Temple University Japan's Institute for Contemporary Japanese Studies will host an academic conference called Digital Youth in East Asia (www.tuj.ac.jp/newsite/main/news/specialevents/events 2008/events 080501.html), featuring speakers from around the world, including your columnist.

"Couldn't make any friends," Kato wrote from his mobile phone the morning of his stabbing spree. "Everything is against me."

With the rise of China, India and other Asian nations on the global stage, and violence erupting at home, Japan may no longer be able to live solely for its own obsessions and subcultures.

Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S." (www.japanamericabook.com), now available in an updated paperback edition. His column appears twice a month.

(Jun. 13, 2008)
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